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“Thanks for the genteel present”: John Adam’s receipt of two cases of Constantia wine in 1788

January 21, 2015 1 comment

The rare Constantia wines of the Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa were historically held in such high regard that it seems incredible there is no record of Thomas Jefferson having purchased, let alone tasted these wines.  Apparently there have been enough claims to the contrary that the Constantia Wine entry at Monticello states the researchers are “unable to find any documentary evidence that Thomas Jefferson purchased or consumed Constantia wines or ‘vins du Constance.’”   Contemporary research into the history of Constantia wine is being passionately pursued by Joanne Gibson (Winewriter).  She noted in The World of Fine Wine Magazine that she searched “(in vain) for evidence that US founding father and noted wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson ever drank Constantia”.[1]

Location of Constantia farms from the map City of Cape Town and environs. 1931. The William and Yvonne Jacobson Digital Africana Program at UCT.

Location of Constantia farms from the map City of Cape Town and environs. 1931. The William and Yvonne Jacobson Digital Africana Program at UCT.

I too have, admittedly, spent much time searching for this connection to no avail.  We do know through newspaper advertisements that Constantia wine was sold in America as early as 1750.[2]  The wine was periodically advertised for sale over the years even in such close locations to Washington, DC, as Baltimore, Maryland in 1805.[3]   While this suggests that there was some knowledge of the wine in America it does not reveal who drank the wine.  For that we must look beyond Thomas Jefferson.  Fortunately, there are other Founding Fathers who loved and drank amongst the best wines.  I first revealed on this blog how George Washington received a case of Constantia wine while encamped at Valley Forge in 1778.[4]  I also demonstrated that John Adams drank Constantia wine at a fabulous dinner in Spain during 1779.[5]

It turns out that John Adams received a shipment of Constantia wine upon his return to America in 1788.  His return marked the end of several years living in Europe as ambassador to the Dutch Republic and minister to the Court of St. James’s.    On August 21, 1788, Nicolaas and Jacob van Staphorst of Amsterdam sent a letter to John Adams informing him that they had shipped two cases to him, one case “containing Two Dozen Bottles Constantia Wine”.[6]  John Adams worked with the van Staphorst brothers, who were Dutch bankers, to arrange a series of loans to the United States.  The wine represented a token of their “Remembrance and Esteem.”  That the brothers were able to procure such a quantity of Constantia wine makes sense because at the time the Dutch East India Company had rights to purchase and bring up casks of Constantia from the farms of Hendrick Cloete and Johannes Colyn.

The van Staphorst letter states there was an “inclosed Bill of Lading” but this does not appear to have survived.[7]  This is unfortunate because these bills can hold important facts such as vintage and producer.  Despite the lack of any documentation tracking the shipment of this wine we do know that the bottles were received by John Adams.  On December 2, 1788, he wrote back from Boston with “my Thanks for the genteel present contained in two Cases”.[8]

I can find no further documentation about this case of wine during this period even in the handful of John Adams’ letters with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  It does appear that knowledge about Constantia wine is broader than generally held before.  There is no documentary evidence that James Madison drank Constantia wine but he is recorded as recounting in 1816 a witticism of Theodore A. Erskine.  In this case a “Cape wine” served in a small bottle, meaning Constantia, was promptly emptied and with no hope for more, it was stated “‘Well, sir, if we cannot double the cape, we must get into port.’”[9]

Extract of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, June 01, 1807. [10]

Extract of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, June 01, 1807. [10]

It seems odd then that if George Washington and John Adams had bottles of Constantia and James Madison was at least aware of it that Thomas Jefferson appears silent.  I do not think this is necessarily true.  It is frequently cited that Thomas Jefferson classified wines of the “Cape” as the most expensive alongside Tokay, Malmsey, and Hock in a letter regarding wine tariffs dated June 1, 1807.[10] The high cost per gallon implies he was describing the extraordinary Constantia wine.  Based on two letters we know that John Adams equated “Vin de Cap” with Constantia wine.  Thomas Jefferson used such a term in two letters dated May 26, 1819. In these letters he described the different qualities of wine placing “Vin du Cap” under the category “1. sweet wines”.[11]  Given that Constantia was a sweet wine, I believe this increases the possibility that this is the wine Thomas Jefferson was describing.

Extract of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Catalan Jr., May 26, 1819. [11]

Extract of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Catalan Jr., May 26, 1819. [11]

Regardless of which Cape wines Thomas Jefferson was referring to, it appears he did not succeed in adding these wines to the tariff list.  Neither appears next to Malmsey nor Tokay in an 1814 list of duties for “Wines in casks, bottles, or other vessels” imported into America.[12]  This perhaps speaks to the general rarity of these wines landing on American shores.  Though the mystery between Thomas Jefferson and Constantia wine still stands, I find it very exciting that John Adams received two cases of it.  It not only shows the high regard for the wine amongst the Founding Fathers, it also demonstrates how the history of wine may evolve due to the continued development of digital archives.


[1] Gibson, Joanne. “The Cape Grape and the Beginnings of American Viticulture”.  The World of Fine Wine. Issue 42, 2013.
[2] ““curious white Constantia Cape Wine”: The Advertisement of Constantia Wine Through 1795” URL: https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/curious-white-constantia-cape-wine-the-advertisement-of-constantia-wine-through-1795/
[3] Date: Monday, December 16, 1805               Paper: American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: XI   Issue: 2067   Page: 3
[4] “General George Washington’s Curious Case of Constantia Wine”. URL: https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/general-george-washingtons-curious-case-of-constantia-wine/
[5] “John Adams Drank Constantia Wine in Spain”. URL: https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/john-adams-drank-constantia-wine-in-spain/
[6] “To John Adams from Nicolaas Van Staphorst, 21 August 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-0413 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.
[7] Private correspondence with Andrea Cronin, Asst. Reference Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society.
[8] “From John Adams to Nicolaas Van Staphorst, 2 December 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-0440 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.
[9] A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816 Author(s): L. G. Moffatt, J. M. Carrière and J. G. Moffatt Source: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1945), pp. 197-214. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245357 .
[10] “From Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1 June 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-5674 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. It is not an authoritative final version.
[11] “From Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Cathalan, Jr., 26 May 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-0434 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. It is not an authoritative final version.  And “From Thomas Jefferson to Victor Adolphus Sasserno, 26 May 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-0437 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. It is not an authoritative final version.
[12] Brice, John. A selection of all the laws of the United States, now in force, relative to commercial subjects. 1814. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=WjNKAAAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false

John Adams Drank Constantia Wine in Spain

March 14, 2014 2 comments
A New Map of Spain and Portugal. John Cary. 1801. David Rumsey Map Collection.

A New Map of Spain and Portugal. John Cary. 1801. David Rumsey Map Collection.

In December 1779, John Adams set off through Spain.  By his accounts, his dinner with Monsieur De Tournell on Sunday, December 19, 1779, featured “the greatest Profusion and Variety of Wines I ever saw brought to any table.”[1]  He continues, ” In Addition to the Wines of France, Bourdeaux, Champaigne, Burgundy, We had Constantin and all the best Wines of Spain red and white. The names and qualities of all of them were given Us, but I remember only the Sherry, Alicanté and Navarre.”  From a second portion of his diary the wines were described as, “We had every Luxury, but the Wines were Bourdeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Sherry, Alicante, Navarre, and Vin de Cap. The most delicious in the World.”[2]  In the previous, more detailed diary entry, he notes ,”The Spanish and Irish Gentlemen” complemented the Consul “on the Excellence of his Wines which they pronounced the oldest and best they had ever seen.”  The Chief Justice and Attorney General were pleased by the, “rich and rare Selection of Spanish Wines”.

Detail showing John Adams on left. Declaration of Independance. John Trumbull. 1817. Image from Wikipedia.

Detail showing John Adams on left. Declaration of Independance. John Trumbull. 1817. Image from Wikipedia.

In the two entries by John Adams he appears to equate “Constantin” with “Vin de Cap” and potentially qualifying it with “The most delicious in the World.”  It is possible that John Adams drank Constantia wine.  In reviewing John Adams’ actual diary entry I believe he wrote “Constantia” and not “Constantin”.  I am not an expert in his handwriting but there appears to be a little curlicue on the last letter indicative of the letter “a”.[3]  Despite transcription differences there are other period publications relating the wines of Constantia with Vin de Cap which reinforce that he drank Constantia wine.  In Carl Peter Thunberg’s Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia, förrättad åren 1770-1779 he writes of the two farms Great and Little Constantia, “is celebrated for its highly delicious wine, known by the name of Constantia wine or Vin de Cap“.[4]  Two other publications relating these two descriptions include “Constantia, situee derriere la montagne de la Table, est le vin de Cap par excellence”.[5]  As well as a letter from J.H.F. Oldecop to Prince Alexandre Kourakin dated February 18, 1773, he writes of “du veritable vin de Cap, nomme Constantia”.[6]


[1] “[1779 December 19. Sunday.] ,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-04-02-0002-0018, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 4, Autobiography, Parts Two and Three, 1777–1780, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 209–211.
[2]“1779 December 19. Sunday.,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0009-0008-0012, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 2, 1771–1781, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 413–414.
[3] John Adams autobiography, part 3, “Peace,” 1779-1780, sheet 9 of 18, 19 – 24 December 1779.  URL: http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/popup?id=A3_9&page=A3_9_1
[4] For the origin see Thunberg, Carl Peter. Resa uti Europa, Africa, Asia, förrättad åren 1770-1779. 1788. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=uYwBAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP9#v=onepage&q&f=false and for the English translation please see Travels at the Cape of Good Hope, 1772-1775: Based on the English Edition. 1986. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=ocliNOUc20oC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
[5] Nouvel esprit des journaux français et étrangers. 1793. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=Jb0UAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Архив Кн. Ө.А. Куракина, Volumes 7-8. 1898. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=jeUDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false